But that is for another post – the point I really want to stress at the moment is that we need the bourgeois virtues, and that their pursuit can and often does play a crucial part in enabling someone to live a happy, purposeful life which serves other people and makes society a good place to be. Being pernickety about litter and not swearing in public and not being loud on public transport are never going to be lauded in the history books, but they do contribute massively to the public good. They help people relax and find contentment and peace; they help people feel at home in the world. They treat the world as if it is genuinely a shared place, where we must take into account the needs of others, rather than belonging to the loudest and strongest and least considerate.
There is a rather glib form of pseudo-radicalism that regards good manners, punctuality, smart dress etc. as affectation and hypocrisy. People shouldn’t care about mere appearances, or mere forms of speech; what matters is substance. But again, being careful to put others at ease, to show them that you take them seriously and that you value their time, is deeply substantial.
When we were driving around town, I remember my mom always turning the stereo down when we would stop at traffic lights (we never had AC in our cars when I was growing up, so the windows were down in warm weather). It wasn’t because the lack of road noise made the music too loud while sitting still; it was because we were now in some sort of shared social space. I intuitively picked up the idea that it was rude to inflict your personal enjoyment on other people who hadn’t asked to be included. Was it a generational thing? Were most adults at the time like that, or was she just a weirdly polite individual? I don’t know, but by the time I was driving on my own a decade or so later, it was already becoming common to encounter people pulling up to gas pumps or convenience stores and leaving their stereos blasting loud enough to be heard a mile away. Is it arrogance, insecurity, or simply self-centered indifference which makes people oblivious to the norms of particular social settings?
The other day, we went to the gym late in the evening. One of the other members, a very heavily tattooed guy, was wearing a hoodie that read, in big block letters on the front, “Physically Fit and Tatted as Shit,” as if it weren’t obvious. At one point, I noticed a woman who had been on the cardio machines head toward the back and reappear a couple minutes later with her two young kids, who had been in childcare while she exercised. I don’t know if they noticed him, or vice versa, and I don’t know if either would have cared, but it did occur to me that if I had been wearing that sweatshirt, and if I had somehow been unembarrassed to do so, I would have felt embarrassed at seeing two little kids and their mom walk past close enough to see it. It’s not about whether we have the “right” to wear what we want; it’s just an acknowledgment that a phrase which could be a mildly-amusing inside joke in one context, among friends, can seem gratuitously stupid in another, in public, and we should alter our behavior to reflect the difference. I remember a buddy from work, a devout Christian, ex-military, telling me a story about being on a bus in Arizona and almost getting beaten by a group of guys after he told them to stop cursing in front of children. I admired his courage, but I have to admit I would have only been one of those clucking my tongue in silence.
I realize that this all sounds like a cliché and is typically answered with even worse clichés. “Get off my lawn, you kids.” “Old man yells at cloud.” The usual suspects would additionally insist that “manners” are just one more bourgeois invention designed to distinguish them from their social inferiors, who are already struggling under the unjust burden of racial and class grievances. Until society’s flaws have been remedied by enlightened state policy, it would be unfair and unrealistic to expect individuals to do their own little bit toward making the world more sweet. But contra the unfortunate philosophical legacy of Rousseau, people in their natural, uninhibited state are not very pleasant. Those chains of which he complained are the necessary counterweight to selfishness and self-indulgence. Even Ozzy Osbourne, of all people, born in 1948, spoke of his father, a toolmaker in postwar Birmingham, saying to him, “‘You might not have a good education, but good manners don’t cost you anything.’ And he always practiced what he preached: he’d always give up his seat on the bus for a woman or help an old lady across the road.” Was Papa Osbourne’s generation the last to see things that way?
The Lady of the House comes from an extremely egalitarian background, one in which earthy, intimate familiarity is taken for granted. Reticence or formal politeness can be interpreted as rudeness, or putting on airs. I’ve tried to suggest to her that by contrast, a lot of typical Southern men, however roughneck they may be, are somewhat taken aback by a young woman who freely curses among casual acquaintances. It’s not about being offended, per se — of course, they all know and use those words themselves. And no one objects to the meat and potatoes of outgoing friendliness; they merely prefer them with less salty language sprinkled on top. It’s just that people expect and practice a bit more official decorum in mixed company. Perhaps it’s a lingering remnant of Southern honor culture. The gesture matters. You wouldn’t want to violate protocol and find yourself challenged to a duel for insulting someone’s honor. Still, she hates the way so many men here, both young and old, reflexively call her “ma’am.” In her culture, that’s like holding oneself aloof, refusing to engage as equals. I’ve tried to explain that this poor twenty-year-old contractor probably got cuffed upside his head countless times as a boy by his parents or grandparents for neglecting to say “ma’am” to a woman, so it would be cruel to insist on him breaking that habit in her case. Likewise, I’ve suggested that her swearing, far from relaxing people and placing them on an equal social footing, actually makes them uneasy. Disregarding little social niceties makes you an unknown quantity in their eyes, a loose cannon. Is this an example of Isaiah Berlin’s incommensurate values? You show respect through straightforwardness, we show respect through discretion. How do we adjudicate between the two? “When in Rome,” I suppose.
And in any case bourgeois morality is not just a matter of the small things. A film that pays magnificent tribute to the self-denying virtues is Brief Encounter. In Brief Encounter, we follow the story of Alec and Laura. Both are married people in early middle age who fall deeply in love after a chance meeting and consider running away together. In the end they decide that they do not have the right to ruin the happiness of others – their spouses and children – to fulfil themselves. At the end of the film they part forever (Alec to take up a post in South Africa). They put duty and morality before desire, privileging the feelings and contentment of others over their own. I once visited a school with the rather splendid motto nemo sibi nascitur: “no-one is born unto himself alone”. Laura and Alec know this. They treat their marriage vows seriously, because vows matter. They understand that they are vital figures in other people’s networks of support and happiness and stability.
It is easy now to mock their “repression”, so-called, or their fear of breaking with social convention. The disgraced columnist Johann Hari once wrote of the film that the central characters appeared to him to be “deeply mentally ill”, and suggested that the climax sees the two characters “return to miserable, wasted lives”. This seems like a view that could only be taken by someone whose mind is entirely addled by the uncritical adulation of the bohemian virtues. Both Alec and Laura are much-loved spouses and parents (and, presumably, fondly-regarded siblings and friends). Alec is a doctor! In what possible sense are their lives “wasted”? If anything, it is giving in to their desires which would be wasteful of all the value and joy they bring in and through their existing relationships.
I had a friend who wrote to me out of the blue several years ago to tell me of her separation from her husband (with whom I’d been friends even longer; in fact, it was through him that I even knew her). She presented her side of the story. I never asked for his; I just offered my sympathy. And truth be told, I did sympathize with him. I have no idea how valid her complaints were, but I also knew full well that she and her two teenagers weren’t always the easiest people to live with, and I thought he made a strong effort at it. “I deserve to have my needs met. I deserve more,” she wrote in conclusion. As far as I’m aware, though, she’s no happier now, especially since she turned her attention and energy toward the social justice/therapeutic morass so endemic to her niche of academia. Of course, I can only say so much from a superficial perspective on something as intricate as a marriage, but I also can’t help but suspect that she made the perfect the enemy of the good and subsequently ended up with neither. “Deserve”? What does “deserve” have to do with anything? As a Danish royal once said, give everyone what they “deserve,” and we’ll all be due for a whipping!
Sometimes I jokingly (or half-jokingly) think that Melody Beattie, the Codependent No More author, “one of the seminal figures in the recovery movement,” is one of the greatest monsters of our time for the epidemic of narcissism she unwittingly helped to unleash. It’s currently trendy for professional thinkers to blame Locke, Hobbes and Mill (if not William of Ockham even further back) for all of our social ills, but personally, I don’t think liberalism turned malignant until notions of responsibility, sacrifice and duty within personal relationships got redefined as codependency. Rousseau’s chains reappeared in the guise of self-help. Somewhere in the upheaval, the baby of courteous obligation to others got thrown out with the bathwater of stifling conformity. I imagine that if and when it comes back, it will be due to the cyclical nature of such things: we may simply get bored of authenticity and vulgarity.